It seems that London’s Clay Pipe Music can do no wrong. Illustrator Frances Castle is responsible for the label’s unified look, and she exercises great care in selecting the label’s lineup. A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes adds a literary tone to the art and music, making the album a creative trifecta.
Gareth E. Rees’ blog The Marshman Chronicles is the inspiration for a short story of the same name, included in the newly-published Influx Press book, Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London. It’s also the inspiration for this album, which pairs Rees’ words with the music of Jetsam. The marshes are a mix of the intact and the decayed: look up, and one sees the outskirts of the city, but look down, and one sees rusted remnants of 20th century transport and WWII bomb craters. In the city, humans are attempting to tame and conquer nature; in the marshes, nature is reclaiming its own. The disorientation is echoed by a battle between words and music for supremacy. Words attempt to define, and music casts a wider swath.
“There is a hole in London,” the narrator begins, sadly. “Lost footballs from long-abandoned games tick against the canal side … wind blows the ketamine debris of an outdoor rave”. The wide marshlands swallow history, chew it up, and serve it up as stew. Signposts are eradicated; all sense of time is lost. “You must put your ear to the fragments if you wish to eavesdrop”, Rees intones, as Jetsam plays a mournful dirge.
As the album progresses, what seems like an elegy becomes first a mad dash of discovery, and then a meditation on personal loss, seen through the symbols of the marsh. The music reflects every surge and dip, every sullen retreat, every courageous forward step. Jetsam’s experience is evident in every note. The ensemble works around the words like a river around a stone, flowing freely to occupy the empty spaces. Flute, cello, piano and guitar are free to fly solo or to work in tandem, depending on what is needed: dark strings for “Water Works”, small orchestra for the mostly-instrumental “Flight”. “Hammers strike the sky, sparks fly”, reports Rees, addressing London’s construction boom on the foreboding “Pylon Marsh”; but his words can be applied to Jetsam’s musical architecture as well. Sparks fly between performers as the hammers touch the strings. Order is formed from chaos. (Richard Allen)